For a stronger community, we need to do better by our youth

Imagine you’re on a group hike, hunt, or other great Alaska adventure and a member of the team breaks their leg. The entire crew would rally around that person to ensure they received the care they needed. The injured likely wouldn’t have even needed to ask for help; their pain would be clear and providing whatever assistance was needed would be an automatic instinct for the others.

But what if their injury wasn’t so obvious? What if they were embarrassed to bring attention to it or thought it wasn’t so serious? They don’t want to slow down the group, so they hobble along as best as they can, biting their tongue, hiding their discomfort. Or what if they did ask for help and they were told to ignore it, that it’s not so bad, that it’ll go away on its own?

When we think we have the tools and support to survive and thrive in our own adventures, when the barriers to accessing help don’t affect us, it can be hard to put ourselves in another’s shoes. But when you shift this from wilderness injuries to mental health and well-being, the data is revealing that people, especially youths, are not finding the help they need.

In fact, 80% of children and adolescents with a serious emotional disturbance do not receive needed services. Why?

Long before COVID-19 reached our state, we already faced a public health emergency. The recently released Kids Count report from Alaska Children’s Trust revealed a 66% increase in teen suicide attempts in 2019 from the decade before. Teens reporting feeling sad or hopeless increased from 25% to 38%. This was before the pandemic upended life for all of us. When you’re a growing teenager, an entire year of disruption can take a heavy toll.

So, we know the need is there. And we know services are available — VOA Alaska doesn’t have a waitlist and can get clients into an assessment on day one. Again, why? Why aren’t more youths receiving the help they need?

One challenge is the stigma that persists around receiving outside support. How do you ask for help if you feel it’s wrong or it makes you look weak? If this stigma is ingrained into the dynamics of a family or social group, reaching out for help when someone needs it most can feel impossible.


Another challenge is awareness and access to care. When someone does want to reach out, how do they find help? One solution is expanding care to where youths are, such as directly within schools. VOA Alaska, in partnership with Providence Health and Services Alaska, Providence Alaska Foundation and the Anchorage School District, have embedded mental health clinicians in several schools. This provides students direct access to professional care in a familiar place with a familiar face.

We need to break these barriers for youth. We can achieve this by advocating, funding, and providing services that are free of stigma, that are easily accessed, and that are readily available. Investing in our youth now pays dividends in the long run. It’s going to be the thing that saves our community money in the long term, and it’s going to allow for people to be contributing members of our society in ways that we could never have imagined.

The best thing that we can do for our community tomorrow is to do better for youth today.

Dr. Lisa Lindquist is the Chair of Psychiatry at Providence Alaska Medical Center and a member of the VOA Alaska Board of Directors.

Sherrie Wilson Hinshaw is the president and CEO of VOA Alaska, an Anchorage based nonprofit which provides low- or no-cost behavioral health support to youth and their families.

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